Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Karl Barth's surprising dogmatics

One of my ambitions in life is to read all of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. Its taken me some 12 or 13 years to almost get to the end of the second part of volume one. I must think I am going to live forever!

Barth is reasonably hard going so I often do my reading on holiday when my mind is less distracted than usual. A few days away over the long weekend enabled a few more pages to be read. My experience, incidentally, illustrated a point Clive James makes in his book Cultural Amnesia (which I am also slowly making my way through): even works by geniuses have their pages or stanzas which are ordinary, but persistence in reading pays off because the extraordinary soon jumps off the page again. After some ordinary - let's be more precise, boring - pages on the role of dogmatics in the life of the church, Barth suddenly sparkled into genius mode. Drawing out the relationship between 'dogmatics' and 'the Word of God', he made a slashing point against all Reformation church confessions, warning that they are always insufficient (some doctrine or other important today gets under-emphasised or even ignored in a previous different age), and, worse, they constrain the hearing of the Word of God today by more or less telling us in advance what the Word of God cannot mean.

In the midst of setting this out Barth makes a statement which is as refreshing as it is challenging, especially at this time for Anglicans:

'Essentially dogmatic method consists in this openness to receive new truth, and only in this.' [CD 1/2 p. 867]

Here 'new truth' is essentially 'new insight and new emphasis in our understanding of God drawn from the Word of God inscribed in Scripture'. Earlier on p. 865 Barth defines dogmatics as 'ecclesiastical science which presupposes only the Word of God self-attested in Scripture'.

Personally I find Barth challenging at this point because I like to look back to documents like the Thirty-Nine Articles and to reflect on the boundaries they set for theology. Barth's point is not that the Reformation confessions are of no further use, but that they are of limited use. Be open to God's Word for today, unbound by yesterday's understanding. But lest we abuse Barth's heady freedom at this point, I also understand him as asking the church to be open to all of God's Word and not to that which is congenial to us. One of the cherished notions he also slays through these pages is the distinction between fundamental articles of faith and non-fundamental articles.

Now that is an interesting thought in these days of Anglican controversy in which some like to make much of the difference between core and non-core doctrine or between first order and second order issues!

1 comment:

Peace Dudes said...

In your openness to receive new truth, you might find it a much better task if you begin at the end and work backwards - and that's particularly true with Barth.
To paraphrase the man himself, it's the same mountain being circled with different views and vistas being made clear each time round.
The later volumes have a more mature theology, and enjoyed Charlotte's hand.